Tag Archives: Hollywood

Negotiating The Godfather

 

Godfather Cat Red

There is an absolutely brilliant piece of writing in Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather. It’s not the opening scene which perfectly establishes the power and darkness of Marlon Brando’s Godfather Vito Corleone and the tone of the film and the resulting trilogy. It isn’t one of the many classic lines; “I believe in America!” “I’m gonna make him an offer he can’t refuse,”, “Luca Brasi sleeps with the fishes”, “Keep your friends close but your enemies closer,” “Don’t ever take sides with anyone against the family again…ever.” (a line which foreshadows Michael Corleone’s murder of his brother and eventual moral downfall as he destroys his own family). It’s not the big, showy assassination scenes or the unforgettable minor characters that are patiently sketched out. I could go on listing all the many examples of masterpiece writing.

Godfather Negotiates With Sollozo

The scene I’m referring to is the subtle and under-appreciated negotiation scene with thug-on-the-rise Virgil Sollozzo a.k.a. The Turk. Brando’s Godfather is there as is his son Sonny (James Caan) and two of their henchmen with The Turk at the negotiating table. It is a verbal game of cards with everyone keeping their opinions close to their chests and giving nothing away. It is the 1940s just after World War II. The Turk wants money from the Corleone family to set up a drug-dealing operation (after the Prohibition booze boom of the the 30s, drugs would be the next one for organised crime) which is “infamita” and unacceptable to Brando’s Godfather. This frustrates The Turk and also Corleone’s son who can see the huge opportunity to get in early to the drugs market and make vast profits.

Godfather Sollozzo

The Turk offers a sweetener that rival mob family The Tattaglias will guarantee the Corleone family’s investment. Hot-headed Sonny foolishly puts all his cards on the table and reveals an eagerness for the deal. “Wait a minute,” Sonny says, “are you telling me that The Tattaglias will guarantee our investment?” There are subtle reaction shots from everyone around the table. It’s a huge mistake and all of them know it immediately. The Godfather tries to reprimand his son and makes apologies for his rashness but it is too late. A division in the family is now revealed and Sollozzo can start to take lethal action to get his deal.

Godfather Tries To Stop Sonny

That one line will change the course of the rest of the movie and the other two films that follow. It will result in the death of Sonny Corelone, the attempted murder of his father Vito, the exile of his brother Michael (Al Pacino) to Sicily for taking revenge on Sollozzo and a crooked cop and Michael’s subsequent merciless rise to power on his return, the near-destruction of The Corleone family and an all-out war between the five Mafia families.

Godfather Assassination Attempt

 

Godfather Sonny Shot

Sonny dies before most of these things happen, so he never sees the full consequences of his actions, but we don’t in life. We see some of them, but never all. Another nice touch in the screenplay. The Corleone family are clearly based on the Kennedy clan and their rise from immigrant obscurity to power and success in America with help from organised crime. There then followed assassinations and an unbelievable litany of tragedies just like the Corleones endure. No wonder Americans lapped up  The Godfather in the early 70s; they were watching their own history writ large with the drama bringing them even closer inside it.

The Sollozzo negotiation scene is rarely commented upon but it is masterful in its execution. Sonny’s unthinking rage is the Achilles heel of the Corleone family, a thread sticking out of a quilt that is gently tugged upon to start the whole thing unravelling. A superb piece of writing that, in a movie that is all about strength and power, reveals a realistic human frailty. The moment is even foreshadowed by Brando who says: “Women and children can be careless but never men.” A great deal of clever planning has gone into the script’s epic construction by Coppola and Mario Puzo based on Puzo’s 1969 novel of the same name. It rightly won the Oscar for Best Screenplay.

Text: © Stewart Stafford, 2016. All rights reserved

The Godfather © Paramount Pictures

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Hollywood’s Statement of Individuality

George Carlin Quote

[SPOILER ALERT! If you haven’t read the book or seen the movie 12 Years A Slave yet, come back and read this when you have.]

The central tenet of all American movies is this: individual righteousness is more important than the group ethic. You’ll see it in everything from the Planet of the Apes series to the Jason Bourne movies to Schindler’s List. If your peers or superiors tell you to do something that you find morally wrong, then, however serious the consequences, you must do what is right by your own code of ethics. A surprising message from the United States.

12-years-a-slave Poster

That message popped up again in the superb 12 Years A Slave that I watched for the first time last night. I had avoided it as I thought it was going to beat me over the head with a message about race (as some slave dramas can do hysterically). With race playing so heavily in any slavery story, it is tempting to simplify everything into black and white with all whites portrayed as evil sadists and all blacks being innocent victims. Slavery, like all human constructs, was complex. Whites and blacks did things we would expect of them but also things we would not. By following Solomon Northup’s eyewitness testimony of the time from his 1853 book of the same name, 12 Years A Slave avoids pouring 21st century clichés and misconceptions into the script. It shows great subtlety and fairness in allowing light and shade in both the slaves and slavers and that is part of the film’s greatness.

The racial element is sometimes overstated in slavery tales, at its heart it was the rich exploiting the poor for monetary gain. That’s an ancient story in a different guise for a new time.

The script by John Ridley is superb. Using the language of the time (“until freedom is opportune!” “melancholia”) also brings realism to proceedings. Steve McQueen brings a lightness of touch to the direction of the piece.

White women come off particularly badly in the movie. They appear as manipulative, bloodthirsty Salome/Lady Macbeth types, demanding punishment of others from their men and getting it. The subtext appears to be, when supposedly caring, maternal females in a society are that cruel and malicious, what hope is there for the men? None, it would seem. Shakespeare got that spot on and the idea works well again here.

Brad Pitt With Solomon

While Solomon is tricked into slavery by unscrupulous white men, it is a white man (hello Mr Self-Conscious Liberal and producer Brad Pitt) who gets his letter out to the North and starts the process of freedom for him. Pitt’s character is a Canadian carpenter working for Fassbender’s slave-driver Epps. Even though it would be financially beneficial to go along with slavery and profit from it, Pitt chooses to sabotage it and go his own individual way despite peer pressure from Epps.

The poster has Solomon running and I assumed he was going to become a runaway slave and kept waiting for the moment when he would make his momentous break for freedom. Surprisingly, once his pre-slavery identity is established, Solomon’s release comes through legal means that the white people abide by. There is no big action scene full of suspense as Solomon flees cross-country to reach the safety of the northern states. It is strangely anticlimactic but it is the twist in the tale as the film reminds us that he was one of the few people legally freed.

Solomon Is Freed

When 12 Years A Slave swept the board at the Oscars, some might have thought that the Academy was being politically-correct but the film and those involved in it deserved every award. Lupita Nyong’o is superb as the young female slave Patsey. Raped, beaten and the victim of a bloody, Christ-like flogging from her vile master Edwin Epps (another excellent performance from Michael Fassbender), the young model-turned-actress gives an astonishing, harrowing performance. There isn’t one false note in it. Lupita is one to watch for the future.

86th Annual Academy Awards - Show
Actress Lupita Nyong’o accepts the Best Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role award for ’12 Years a Slave’ onstage during the Oscars at the Dolby Theatre on March 2, 2014 in Hollywood, California. Kevin Winter/Getty Images/AFP

12 Years A Slave is one of the best films I’ve seen in years, right up there with Schindler’s List. Great movies stay with you for days after seeing them. In an age of ubiquitous bubblegum superhero movies that lose their flavour as you’re watching them, that is rare. Comic book movies celebrate violence without responsibility, 12 Years A Slave shows the reality of how violence brutalises everyone involved. With school shootings so common, that’s the message we need to get out to today’s kids more than ever.

© Stewart Stafford, 2016. All rights reserved.

Close Encounters of the Terrifying Kind

Many things scare us. When it comes to stories, whether it’s books or movies, we’re being manipulated into being afraid. So it helps to have many levels of sell. There’s the obvious thing we’re scared of like alien creatures or zombies. Then there’s the subliminal things that may not register at first.

Close Encounters Crowd In Light

I saw Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of The Third Kind when I was six years old. I didn’t understand a lot of it like the significance of the missing Bermuda Triangle Flight 19 reappearing in the desert 32 years after vanishing.

Flight 19

Dreyfuss Alone

I also found the Richard Dreyfuss character’s peculiar behaviour confusing. Today, being an adult who has lived through a global recession, I understand exactly the pressures the Dreyfuss character was under.

Burnett Guffey

There were many scenes I found scary. The obvious scare was the little blond boy being abducted from his room by aliens as his screaming mother loses her grip on him (tapping into every child’s nightmare of being taken away from their mother). The scene that really scared me though was when Richard Dreyfuss gets in the shower with his clothes on and slides to the ground crying.

Shocked Dreyfuss Kids

His son sees it and calls him a cry baby. That really made me worry for the protagonist and his family. In a film full of fantastic visuals and scares, it grounded the film beautifully in harsh realism. It was tapping into the other childhood fear that the father, the head of the family, would lose control of himself and the family’s future. So Close Encounters has its visual scares (the aliens) and its psychological kicker (fear of the unknown).

tarman-560

Zombies also have a surface fear and a more profound one playing under the decaying skin on display. The packs of ravenous zombies are frightening (one newspaper branded the zombie the official fantasy creature of the recession!). What is more frightening however is the fear of the unknown they represent. In a zombie apocalypse, everything you know is changing; you don’t know why it’s changing, you don’t know what it’s changing into and there’s nothing you can do to stop it. Just like Close Encounters, zombie movies regress us to a state of infantile powerlessness (which is perhaps why monsters in movies are usually huge with big teeth, the same way our parents appeared to us when we were toothless babies.)

Day-of-the-Dead-1985-FilmCap

The best writers know how to layer in subtext to give deeper meaning to what was once B-movie material. It is perhaps one reason why fantasy and science fiction movies are now being nominated for and winning Academy Awards in all the major categories, something that was once unheard of and is a refreshing change.

(To read more of my writing on a similar subject click here)

© Stewart Stafford, 2016. All Rights Reserved.

Dark Valentine: My Relationship with “Silence of the Lambs” On Its 25th Anniversary

On Valentine’s Day 1991, The Silence of the Lambs had its premiere in New York. It took several months to reach the other side of the Atlantic and didn’t open in Dublin until May 1991 – a particularly dull, chilly month. It was one of those event movies that everyone says you have to see. As with The Exorcist and Fatal Attraction, it dominated the media for weeks. There were TV panel discussions on the hysteria for this new phenomenon – the serial killer (they were common or garden psychopaths before that.) It was the last film that I missed out on seeing because the cinema was full. With so many multiplexes everywhere, you get in to see whatever film you want now. Having to make a second attempt to join the lengthy queue and get in made it more enjoyable, I found.

manhunterThe other Hannibal movie from five years earlier, Manhunter, got a boost from the huge success of Silence. It had slipped under the radar pretty much as there were no big names starring in it. People caught up with it in 1991 and a new fanbase for that film emerged. It’s also superb.

LecterI found my seat in the auditorium and the lights went down. I had no idea what I’d let myself in for. I saw Silence in the Savoy, at the time the biggest screen in Dublin. Silence features extreme close-ups of the faces of Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins) and Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster) as they stare directly into camera at each other but also at the audience. Audiences are used to being voyeurs and watching the actors, not having them stare back. As Lecter unpicks Starling’s psyche, he does the same to the audience. I felt like a baby in a pram with these massive faces looming down at me. I was pressing back into my chair to get away from them. That’s never happened to me with any other movie before or since. On television, with the faces shrunk, it has none of that power (if you ever get the chance to see Silence of the Lambs on the big screen, take it.)

That wintry May in Dublin was significant, as I can’t think of another movie that depicts the ravages of winter so well. The first sound you hear is the clarinet of Howard Shore’s brilliant score. It sounds like birdsong and then you hear it again. It perfectly sets the scene as we see FBI trainee Clarice Starling jogging alone on a deserted assault course with brown Autumn leaves still in evidence. The film later shows what winter does to the soft flesh of a dumped female victim in the mortuary scene.

Clarice-surrounded

Unusually, for a film written, produced and directed by men, it has a pro-feminist bent. The males, like Doctor Chilton and Miggs, are all sleazy pervs to a man who only want get into Clarice’s pants (even Hannibal has a go at innuendo until he’s put in his place by Clarice). This is not just a serial killer thriller (although you get your fix of that too). It touched on many important themes that movies in the early 90s just didn’t; gender, sexuality, the relationship between fathers and daughters, even how we judge people based on their height. You got your criminal profiling layer too. Despite Clarice saying that “transsexuals are very passive,” the movie (along with Basic Instinct in 1992) was picketed by LGBT groups. It was a tradition dating back to Psycho to have a “deviant” villain.  It’s one reason Silence of the Lambs could never be made today in the form its in right now, which makes it such an honest film. Director Jonathan Demme agreed with the protestors and made the apologetic Philadelphia starring Tom Hanks as a lawyer dying of AIDS. Demme won the Academy Award for Silence as best director but his career since has been patchy to say the least.

Clarice Pointing Gun

You could see the film as a battle for the soul of Clarice Starling between the “good” father figure, her boss Jack Crawford, and the “bad” father figure, Hannibal Lecter. Clarice has to break free of them and her childhood trauma (her policeman father was murdered and the killer never found) and grow up and become a woman in her own right.

Clarice with Lamb

The sound design is brilliant; just listen to how the sound grows more menacing as Clarice Starling essentially enters into the bowels of Hell to confront Hannibal Lecter in his plexiglass cell. There are atonal, womb-like noises. It’s got probably the most effective sound design since Alien in 1979 which does a similar job of setting the scene and unnerving the audience.

Hannibal Dungeon

The rich photography by Demme regular Tak Fujimoto is exemplary, particularly the ending in the basement with no light during Clarice’s fight-to-the-death with the serial killer Buffalo Bill. (Every woman in the audience screamed when Bill reached out to touch Clarice’s hair when she couldn’t see him in the pitch darkness.)

Ted Levine

Ted Levine played Buffalo Bill in the movie and he is probably the unsung hero of the whole thing, not even being Oscar-nominated for his terrifying performance while everyone else won Academy Awards.

The-Elephant-Man

There are so many great lines of dialogue. Anthony Hopkins had given up on a Hollywood career and moved back to the UK to appear in theatre. Hopkins got a call in his dressing room from his agent saying there was a script called Silence of the Lambs and would he take a look at it. Hopkins thought it was a children’s film based on the title alone. Director Jonathan Demme came to see him and offered him the part because he’d seen him play an intelligent doctor with a heart in The Elephant Man. Even though Anthony Hopkins is only in Silence of the Lambs for around 14 minutes, he dominates the whole thing, even when he’s offscreen. It won him the Oscar and changed his life and career.

Silence Oscars

Indeed, the film became only the third film after It Happened One Night and One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest to win all five big Oscars – Best Film, Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Director and Best Screenplay (Adapted). To date, it is the only horror film to win the Academy Award for Best Picture. That was an incredible achievement at the time and it only grows even more impressive as the years go on.

Hannibal 2001

There have been other Hannibal books and movies (the sequel Hannibal opened on Valentine’s Day 2001, exactly 10 years later. 2001 was appropriate as Hopkins had based the voice of Hannibal on Hal, the computer from Kubrick’s 2001). None of the new material ever really recaptured the greatness of Silence of the Lambs. It is one of the best thrillers ever made with career-bests from all those involved on every level. There are great twists that you don’t see coming. Even that ending, which refuses to tie things up in a neat bow is daring (it so freaked out one couple in America, that they apparently refused to leave the cinema afterwards). It’s got everything you could ask for really. So, this Valentine’s Day, when you get sick of all the predictable rom-coms, put on that magnificent dark Valentine, The Silence of the Lambs, and luxuriate in a masterclass of acting, filmmaking, screenwriting, photography and production, sound and costume design. You will never see its like again.

© Stewart Stafford, 2016. All rights reserved.

Film Review: Spotlight

This review is spoiler-free.

Spotlight is the story of how journalists at the Spotlight newspaper in Boston exposed child abuse in the Catholic Church at the turn of the century. It desperately wants to be All The President’s Men, but just isn’t good enough. Ben Bradley Jr. is a character in this film. His father, Ben Bradley, was editor of The Washington Post when they broke the story of the Watergate break-in that ultimately brought Richard Nixon’s presidency to an ignominious end. Spotlight also tries to get into the nuts and bolts of what a day in the life of a newspaper is actually like. From all the staff meetings and editorial decisions that have to be taken to the subsequent journalistic legwork on the street, it’s structurally identical to All The President’s Men. (This movie is set in 2001 and it is strange how none of the information the journalists need is gleaned from the internet. It all comes from books, paper files or knocking on doors. There’s another deliberate attempt to ape President’s Men. Spotting something on a computer screen is nowhere near as dramatic as a shock face-to-face revelation with actors.)

The Spotlight team comprises Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo and Rachel McAdams among others. Keaton has already played a newspaper man in 1994’s The Paper. There were some key early acting beats that Keaton fluffed, I thought (that comic bouncy walk of his is all wrong for this movie), but his performance gets better as the movie goes on. Maybe he’s miscast in this and someone with more gravitas might have been better.

The film kicks off with some forced comic relief (no one in the cinema laughed, that’s flawed writing) as the makers know there are a litany of depressing abuse stories ahead and try to lighten the load for the audience. It was similar to Suffragette in that way.

There are further problems with the script. At one point, Mark Ruffalo even yells “We gotta nail these scumbags!” in one of many righteous rants from various characters in the film. That’s a cliché straight out of every cop movie you’ve ever seen. They don’t need to overdo convincing an audience that child abuse is wrong by judging their characters like that. “I was just doin’ my job!” is another chestnut, the equivalent of a Holocaust movie where a former Nazi says they were only following orders (the parallels are deliberate and subtle as a sledgehammer. The character that says that line is Spotlight’s equivalent of the informant Deep Throat from President’s Men, thankfully there are no references to Deep Throat in this as it would have been entirely inappropriate given the sensitive subject matter.) There’s another cliché recycled from Thrillersville later on when there’s a race-against-time to get a crucial source to confirm vital information. Guess what happens.

The church administrators are all soulless, dead-eyed politicians using every trick in the book (guilt trips, threats, intimidation and the law itself) to keep the truth of clerical abuse from being made public. It’s a simplistic black-and-white good vs evil story with some unforgivable hackneyed moments in it. (Even the title plays into black-and-white simplicity, with the crusading journalists shining a spotlight on the darkness of the Catholic Church’s sins. The journalists are such martyrs that they even injure themselves putting on their dishwashers due to the stress of the investigation) Great movies play around in the grey areas more, as that’s where realism lies. The acting, writing and direction in Spotlight are okay, nothing remarkable.

You could sense the movie’s lack of buzz at the announcement of the Oscar nominations recently. Every time Spotlight got one, there was silence. It does feel like it was conceived as worthy Oscar-bait and, as such, it follows the awards rulebook to the letter.

Spotlight is a good film striving for greatness that’s beyond its reach.

Perhaps Spotlight’s best moment comes when it fades to a black screen at the end and lists the names of all the places where abuse scandals involving Catholic clergy have come to light around the world. The screen is filled with them page after page after page. That is truly chilling. Images speak louder than words.

© Stewart Stafford, 2016. All rights reserved.

When Stardust Met Mercury

“Of all the more theatrical rock performers, Freddie took it further than the rest. He took it over the edge. And of course, I always admired a man who wears tights. I only saw him in concert once and as they say, he was definitely a man who could hold an audience in the palm of his hand.”

David Bowie on Freddie Mercury

It is interesting how many times the lives and careers of David Bowie and Freddie Mercury intersected over the years. Bowie, struggling to make a name for himself in the late 60s, played a gig at Freddie’s college, Imperial in London (Bowie never went to college but was self-taught and a voracious reader). Freddie was there to help out. As there was no stage, Bowie told Freddie and the others to help him push some desks together to create a makeshift one and the show went ahead.

Freddie had a desire to become a rock star himself but was struggling to write songs. The man, who in just a few short years would go on to write what is routinely cited as the best song of all-time, Bohemian Rhapsody, would bang his head in frustration on his piano and ask: “how do they do it?” It’s possible he took inspiration from Bowie, a man writing his own material and performing it before Freddie’s very eyes. Bowie’s visual element wasn’t yet there. There’s no doubt that Freddie took inspiration from it when it was. Freddie changed his name to Mercury, messenger of the Gods but also a planet, just as Bowie had christened his alter ego Stardust in a celestial fashion. It was the Dionysian god-like approach to rock music that Jim Morrison had taken earlier.

Freddie and Queen drummer Roger Taylor had a stall in Kensington Market selling exotic clothes and various bits of tat. Even then, Freddie had an eye for the visual. So did Bowie, once again their paths crossed. Freddie’s stall with Roger was going nowhere, so they decided to close it. Freddie got a job at another stall. One day, David Bowie showed up looking for a pair of boots. Freddie fitted him for a pair and sold them to him (did Bowie remember Freddie from Imperial College? It’s possible he didn’t, but Freddie almost certainly remembered him. It wasn’t the first time a star had come down and bought something at the stall where Freddie worked. Noddy Holder from Slade dropped by and bought his iconic mirrored top hat there: “I got the hat off a guy in Kensington market, called Freddie,” Noddy said. “He said: ‘One day I’m gonna be a big pop star like you.’ I said: ‘Fuck off, Freddie.’ He became Freddie Mercury.” So Freddie was playing an important backstage part in glam rock already, seeing their choices, helping them into them and watching their fans react.)

NoddyHolder
Noddy Hoider of Slade with the hat Freddie sold him
Bowie Dress
Bowie in his pre-Ziggy dress-wearing phase

Roll on a few years and David Bowie has found his musical mojo in the character of alien rock god Ziggy Stardust. The 1970s were going to be about the visuals as much as the music.

Photo of David Bowie
Bowie as Ziggy Stardust Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Queen’s drummer Roger Taylor recalls: “Freddie and I saw the first Ziggy gig at Friar’s Aylesbury. We drove down in my Mini. We loved it. I’d seen him there about three weeks before in the long hair and the dress. Suddenly you saw this spiky head coming on stage. You thought, wha-a-at??? They looked like spacemen.” Once again, Bowie was taking chances on stage as Mercury took mental notes in the audience.

Queen soon joined Bowie in the ranks of rock stardom. Bowie and Mercury both worked seperately with photographer Mick Rock. Rock was particularly fond of an old shot of German actress Marlene Dietrich and asked David and Freddie if they wanted to recreate it. Both divas saw the visual possibilities and favourable comparisons with glamorous old Hollywood and responded.

Mercury Dietrich
Marlene Dietrich (left) and Mick Rock’s recreation with Freddie Mercury (right)

Mercury’s Dietrich pose would form the basis of Queen’s cover of their second album “Queen II” and be recreated in the video for “Bohemian Rhapsody” in 1975.

Queen II

Bowie Dietrich
Bowie’s Dietrich pose photographed by Mick Rock

In October 1977, Queen and Bowie released very similar anthems. Queen had “We Are The Champions” and Bowie had “Heroes.” They are both played regularly at sporting events.

Fast-forward to Montreux, Switzerland in 1981. Queen are recording their album Hot Space at Mountain Studios there. Bowie happens to be in town the same night at his apartment there. Engineer David Richards sees a chance at rock history and invites Bowie down to the studio. Bowie does backing vocals for Queen’s track “Cool Cat” (he later refuses permission for the song to be released and insists that his vocals are taken off the track. Some advance tapes had already been sent out with Bowie’s backing vocals on them and are worth quite a lot of money today. The song, minus Bowie’s vocals, was included on Hot Space) In the studio though, everyone seems happy and relaxed with Bowie’s minor contribution. Bowie wants more though and suggests that they write a song together. Roger Taylor already had a track called “Feel Like” which has many background elements of what would become “Under Pressure.” It would be rewritten, have Bowie’s vocals that classic John Deacon bassline added.

“Feel Like” demo

Bowie and Queen could have written an obvious song about love but chose to write about pressure which is something both camps clearly understood. Fans only hear the joy in most music without considering the blood, sweat and tears that sometimes goes into the creation of it. Big stars that write their own material have to keep topping what they’ve done before. They become hostages to their own talent and fanbase in a way. So pressure was the common ground that Bowie and Queen chose to occupy and occupy it spectacularly they did.

Bowie took over the session which seems to have unnerved Brian May: “It was very hard, because you already had four precocious boys and David, who was precocious enough for all of us.” May said Bowie “took over the song lyrically” and demanded control of the last mixing session. (Roger Taylor didn’t seem to mind Bowie’s instructions and felt that Queen could have done more with him at a later date.)

“Under Pressure” studio take

There is a well-known story of the vocal sparring session that developed between Mercury and Bowie. They weren’t supposed to hear the other’s contribution so as to keep their improvisations fresh. However, Bowie was secretly listening to what Mercury was doing. When Mercury got suspicious as to how Bowie was perfectly counterpointing him, Queen’s German producer Mack revealed the deception. “The bastard,” Mercury swore. It wasn’t the only way these two titans were competing with quantities of wine and cocaine allegedly being consumed to jazz up proceedings in the 24-hour session.

As the line “People On Streets” is repeated in the song, that was its title until it became “Under Pressure” at the last minute. Bowie refused to film a video for it but, even so, it gave Queen their second number one when it was released in November 1981 just after the release of their first and best Greatest Hits album. Bowie had hit the top spot the previous year with “Ashes to Ashes” and he would have another chart-topper 18 months later in 1983 with “Let’s Dance.” So the experiment worked for all concerned and is now considered one of the best duets ever recorded (even better than Bowie’s duet with Bing Crosby, although that seems to grow in popularity every Christmas and will again, no doubt, with Bowie’s death.) With “Under Pressure,” David Bowie became a part of Queen history and vice versa.

Bowie Mercury 80s

Their paths crossed again at Live Aid in 1985, when Queen gave what is generally considered the greatest live performance of all-time . Bowie had the unenviable task of having to go on after them and he raised his game. Queen did him a favour in one way as the crowd were already fired up from their performance and Bowie didn’t have to do much to excite them even though he did with a rousing rendition of “Rebel Rebel” and a seminal performance of “Heroes.”

The bassline from “Under Pressure” was sampled in the 1990 Vanilla Ice song “Ice Ice Baby” which also reached number one and once again brought the combined careers of Bowie and Mercury to public attention.

david-bowie-and-freddie-mercury-90s

Freddie Mercury knew he was dying for years before his actual passing (as Bowie did for the last 18 months of his life when diagnosed with Pancreatic Cancer in 2014.) Freddie had only publicly announced his HIV status on Saturday, November 23rd 1991 when he died of AIDS the next day to worldwide shock. Bowie did something similar, bringing out a new album on his birthday with his death being announced just two days later. The impact of Bowie’s death seems greater, possibly because there was no internet when Freddie died. Anyone and everyone could say their piece online about Bowie’s passing and they have.

At Mercury’s funeral, a wreath from David Bowie was sent with the hastily-scribbled note: “Will be missed.” Bowie appeared at the Freddie Mercury Tribute Concert in 1992 where he reunited with his old Ziggy Stardust bandmate Mick Ronson (Ronson died in 1993). Bowie performed “Heroes” and “Under Pressure” with Annie Lennox filling in for Freddie on the duet. (As no video exists showing Bowie and Mercury singing “Under Pressure” together, this duet with Lennox was recut in 1999 to make it appear as if Bowie and Mercury were performing it on stage simultaneously.)

“Under Pressure” Rah Mix

Bowie surprised everyone by getting down on one knee on stage at the old Wembley Stadium and saying The Lord’s Prayer. He hadn’t told Queen or anyone else and only decided to do it five minutes before going on.

When Bowie himself died in January 2016, Brian May described Bowie as a “fearsome” talent (it appears May is still unnerved by the “Under Pressure” sessions 35 years on.)

Bowie Fred Heaven.png

Many internet memes appeared after Bowie’s death showing him reunited with Freddie Mercury in Heaven to sing “Under Pressure” again, reuniting them even in death. The show, as Freddie Mercury once sang, must go on.

Bowie and Fred Angels

© Stewart Stafford, 2016. All rights reserved.

Film Review: Star Wars – The Force Awakens

“It is a time of sacrifice…good and bad.”

This is the first sequel in the Star Wars franchise in 32 years. A long time ago in an era far, far away.

The First Order, the new Empire, is set up awfully fast in The Force Awakens. The last time we saw the Empire at the end of Return of the Jedi, it was defeated and destroyed. Here, somehow, it is at full strength again and even has Star Destroyers and a battle station that dwarfs the Death Star. I think the writers have missed an opportunity to show The First Order as underdog fanatics plotting to overthrow the New Republic in a patient build-up. But nope, we get one line that they have risen from the ashes of the Empire and, that’s it, they’re back, just like that.

The writing is shorn of George Lucas’s interest in diplomacy. For all his flaws, Lucas always grounded the Star Wars movies in a political context. He was very interested in how the states he had created operated. Granted, in the prequels there was far too much talky politics that bogged the movies down in clunky exposition (taxation anyone?). The new script sacrifices depth for pace, humour and a lightness of touch that is reminiscent of A New Hope. The pulling back from full-on CGI aids the realism too.

Lawrence Kasdan who co-wrote The Empire Strikes Back returns as co- writer here, but The Force Awakens is nowhere near as good as that masterpiece. There were so many great lines in the original trilogy “The force will be with you…always,” “I am your Father” and “I’ve got a bad feeling about this.” Some of them are repeated in The Force Awakens but there is nothing new to challenge the old lines. That is a pity. (In the age of the instantaneous internet, could the “I am your father” moment be kept secret now? I doubt it. I accidentally saw a major spoiler for The Force Awakens while typing in a hashtag on Twitter.)

Michael Arndt gives lectures on the original trilogy and wrote the first draft of The Force Awakens script. Perhaps he’s great at analysing why Star Wars works but not so great at creating something new. The script is okay, nothing more (there is a nice riff on the father/son theme that runs through every Star Wars movie and Han Solo finally accepting The Force as being true is a nice payoff to his “hokey religion” dismissal in 1977).

Harrison Ford brings weary charisma and some much-needed gravitas to the film in reprising his old scoundrel Han Solo. He’s given some better lines and more to do than in Indiana Jones & The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, but, just as in that film, the older stars are shoved aside in favour of the newcomers who aren’t that interesting.

Carrie Fisher looks like she’s been at the Botox. The only parts of her face she can move are her lips and even that’s a struggle. It doesn’t look like her and it is a shock seeing her as a shrunken old woman.

We know Daisy Ridley is miscast in the lead role. We know because J.J. Abrams told her on set that her acting was “wooden.” If you’ve cast someone that can’t act in the lead role of the biggest franchise in film history, you’ve hired the wrong person. Ms Ridley compensates by overacting horribly, shouting every line with her eyes as wide as possible. She runs (a lot) and cries (a lot). Apart from that, the jury is still out on her. Then again, Star Wars has a history of not-great acting, so she’s probably keeping up a great tradition.

Muhammad Ali-lookalike, John Boyega, took some criticism in early reviews, but I actually thought he had good comic timing, the audience liked him and he even struck up a buddy rapport with old grumpy pants himself, Harrison Ford. Let’s hope we see more of him in the sequels and spin-offs, he’s the best of the new breed.

John Williams returns to score the picture and it’s okay, nothing as unforgettable as Vader’s Theme from Empire. Darth Vader himself is, for me, the greatest villain in movie history and he is sorely missed. Vader choked people to death by breaking their necks if they defied him. Whereas new baddie Kylo Ren takes his frustration out by incinerating inanimate objects with his lightsaber to keep the rating kiddie-friendly. There’s also some predictable PC casting. Everything that was white and male before now has to be rebooted as female, ethnic and/or LGBT (we’re getting an all-female Ghostbusters reboot and possibly a black James Bond in the future.)

The Force Awakens isn’t as good as I thought it was going to be and I doubt it will stand up to repeat reviewing as the original trilogy did but it is perhaps the best that can be expected now George Lucas has bailed out on his film company. It will no doubt break box office records. No film could probably live up to the hype anyway. It is good to have Star Wars back in whatever form it’s in (I think I know the big plot twist in the next movie too but I won’t spoil it for you, dear reader.)

© Stewart Stafford, 2015. All rights reserved. (Star Wars ©Lucasfilm Ltd)

 

Terminator Genisys – A Terminator Too Far

Terminator Genisys Poster

[N.B. This review contains spoilers, so if you haven’t seen the film yet, you might want to watch it first before reading this. You have been warned.]

It’s sad to witness great ideas being run into the ground but that’s exactly what you get in Terminator Genisys. James Cameron’s cool, iconic, anti-hero android assassin is reduced to a grandfatherly irrelevance spouting boring exposition in the background (“You’re a relic from a deleted timeline!” says the villain to Arnold at one point and it just about sums up how he and his character are treated in this). It reminded me of the last Indiana Jones film where Harrison Ford was literally a backseat passenger most of the time while the younger Shia LaBeouf did all the action. Here Jai Courtney is the younger man given much more to do. It just doesn’t work. The movie is called Terminator for a reason.

It starts well, we finally get to see the moment Skynet gets defeated in a future war prologue and their Terminators, tanks and aerial machines come to a screeching halt. Except, if you’ve read the novelisation of Terminator 2, all of that was in there. James Cameron even planned to film the segment himself in Terminator 2 but ran out of time and money. So that’s a lift from T2. So is Arnold’s fake cyborg smile. Oh and the whole plot about the destruction of Cyberdyne. The first movie gets pilfered too even down to trite lines like “I’ll be back” and “Come with me if you want to live.” It’s time to park those lines and try to come up with new ones or better yet leave us with our memories.

James Cameron got the casting of Sarah Connor and Kyle Reese so right in Linda Hamilton and Michael Biehn, they brought so many different things to the role. The same can’t be said of the tiny Emilia Clarke and Aussie Jai Courtney in the same roles here. There’s no charisma or spark between them. It’s like the makers wanted a slice of the Marvel audience. They reckoned there’s a generation of kids who’ve never seen a Terminator movie. So they took the best bits of the other movies, recast it with young actors and made sure it got a kiddie-friendly 12-rating (there’s no random murders of women called Sarah Connor or bloody massacres in police stations here, just look at the way they rewrite the scene where The Terminator kills three punks who won’t give him their clothes. They wimp out and go for the soft option. The Terminator has lost his edge completely.) It’s also a great shame that neither Christian Bale nor Edward Furlong returned as John Connor, he’s played by another Aussie and the second Clarke in the movie (not related), Jason Clarke. He’s okay even though he bears an uncanny resemblance to the wrong Sarah Connor shot by Arnold back in the 1984 original.

Connor Clarke

On the positive side, we do get to find out that the mother of Kyle Reese, the father of the saviour of humanity, is Irish (knew it! He he.) Plus, there’s a nice reference to The Addams Family when one of the cops sees Arnold and asks: “Who’s Lurch?” (Sarah Connor’s pet iguana in the first Terminator film was called Pugsley, also a nod to The Addams Family.) These flashes of inspiration are few and far between. The jokey dialogue doesn’t really work either.

James Cameron has given Terminator Genisys his blessing but I think he’s being kind to his old pal Arnold Schwarzenegger to help him have a big opening weekend (even so, it’s made $10 million less than predicted at the US box office in its first three days). Paramount had hoped to do two sequels in 2017 and 2018 before the rights automatically revert to James Cameron in 2019. Arnold Schwarzenegger is nearly 70 years old now. It might be best to finally throw The Terminator onto the scrapheap. The thrill has most definitely gone.

© Stewart Stafford, 2015. All rights reserved.

Why ‘The Hobbit’ Doesn’t Cut It

An interesting essay (by a girl named Jack!) comparing and contrasting the content and context of Peter Jackson’s six Tolkien-inspired movies; http://www.ozy.com/performance/why-the-hobbit-doesnt-cut-it/38264

Nightmare! The Birth of Horror: Dracula BBC Documentary

I have just added the excellent BBC documentary on the origins of Bram Stoker’s Dracula to my website. Perfect Halloween viewing; http://thevorbing.com/the-birth-of-horror-bbc-documentary-dracula/